I have to preface this review by saying that I have not seen either the “Her” or “Him” cut of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and there is a large chance the two separate perspective films are good in their own right. However, I may never know the answer to that, as I have little to no interest in seeing the other cuts. The story is not one that is large in scope: married couple Eleanor Rigby and Conor Ludlow (Jessica Chastain, James MvAcoy) attempt to reconnect and figure out their lives after suffering a joint traumatic experience. Pretty straightforward, in fact. First time writer/director Ned Benson, however, decided to tackle the story in a high-concept fashion by breaking up the film in to two separate parts and perspectives. Now, due (apparently) to production company drama, we have one long cut with both of their perspectives combined. The approach is certainly commendable, or at least could be, but it seems like it was a little too much for Benson to take on as a first-timer.
The biggest flaw of the film is its writing. The dialogue tries so hard to come off as realistic that it results in actually sounding highly unnatural. Not to mention, almost every character has a line at some point in the film where they reflexively comment on what they are saying, often pointing out the “clichéd” bits or “sappiness.” Yeah, we might be able to get away with saying things like that in real life, but here it just ends up sounding like sloppy writing. Viola Davis’s role as Eleanor’s professor may be the worst in this regard. She is constantly doling out witty, motherly advice and then rolling her eyes at herself as she acknowledges her own trite words of wisdom. Really, it seems like most of these moments are the film’s way of being “cheesy” without having to own up to it. It’s a shame because the impressive cast should be able to make that reflexive style work.
There are certainly qualities of this film that really shine—Isabelle Huppert unsurprisingly delivers a good performance as Eleanor’s mother, as do William Hurt and Cirián Hinds as the respective fathers. There are also glimmers of innovative cinematic style (though these moments are few and far between), one notable example being when Eleanor revisits her old apartment and thinks back to when she lived there. Instead of snapping into an automatic flashback, the lighting changes back and forth between night and day depending on which timeline we are in. It takes a second at first to realize that we haven’t switched to a new scene, but are instead getting a semi-subjective peek into Eleanor’s mind. Benson no doubt has talent, he just hasn’t fully grown into his own style yet. If he were to hone his craft a little more before his next filmic endeavor and pick a slightly less complicated storytelling technique, he has great potential as a filmmaker. I mean, can anyone really believe that if your name were actually Eleanor Rigby that you would scratch your head with confusion if someone asked you, “Where are all the lonely people?”
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.